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The Prodigal Webmaster Returns

posted by marrael 2012-06-17 05:57:51

 A quick post to ease myself back into regular bog posts again; this one will just contain a bunch of helpful tips and tutorials:

 halla and hart: On painting skin tones, and why lighting = pale is a fallacy
Terese Nielsen talks about drawing the human head for practice in this Muddy Colors Guest Post (and points toward a book I need to hunt down!).
And one from a Fantastic Portfolios member artist: Tips for Realistic Figures and Faces
This one from the Art Order that I can totally connect with, dealing with The Downward Spiral. Psst... it's worse for artists who lose time for art due to parenting or other familial responsibilities!
More later. Welcome back to Fantastic Portfolios!


Getting It Done

posted by marrael 2012-01-30 23:57:38

During my casual surfing on the web, links get bookmarked into my "to blog" list sometimes, and I delete them from the list as they get blogged, tackled or decided against. (It's a handy way to tackle surfing and a to-do list in one.) Now, that "to-blog" or "to-do" bookmark list isn't really today's blog subject (but if you found that tip useful, you're welcome), it's that there was a certain link that sat on the list a long time because, well, I thought linking to it would look like I was advocating smoking, and rudely. (I'm not.) Here it is: 7 Lessons Smokers Can Teach Us About Getting Sh*t Done.

The seven tips really apply for those who are mums, or working day jobs, or juggling those two things on top of playing caregiver for older relatives, or night classes, whatever situation you may be in that keeps art from becoming a full-time vocation. And while I've always appreciated artists and creative people who post photos of their work spaces online, I also have resented those lucky gits who don't have to share their work spaces, or have to clear it all up when it's mealtime (I paint at the dining table) or have to stash paintings under the wardrobes to dry where they will (hopefully) not be found or disturbed by the toddler. Sometimes after all the precautions I take, accidents still happen (like soup being tossed and landing onto a painting three feet away), but if one is determined, one can make art (or smoke) anytime and anywhere. Painting on-site for location paintings and speed-portraits has pretty much cemented this lesson for me.

If you've got a sketch or an idea to work on, but find yourself surfing or watching TV instead, put a pencil and a sketchbook in front of yourself anyway and see which activity wins. That's all this week!


Book Review: 100 Ways to Create Fantasy Characters

posted by marrael 2012-01-24 22:36:47

100 Ways to Create Fantasy Figures 
Author/Artist: Francis Tsai
Publisher: Impact
Francis Tsai wasn't a name I immediately recognised picking up the book. But he is a talented concept artist and freelance illustrator who's worked for all the big companies, and who didn't start out in traditional art school. On that fact in the introduction alone, I was immediately intrigued and encouraged. He draws a distinction between design-based art education and illustration-based art education, and if concept art is an industry you're aiming for, he makes clear that it's beneficial to have the skills taught in both. (Design helps in effective visual communication and problem-solving, while illustration/fine-art training focuses on observation, documenting and reproducing visuals in various media.) Chances are, unless you're in a course specifically for concept art, you probably have a grounding in one field, and would need to be practice the other on your own. (Or if you're like me, you've got to work on both all on your own!)

It's practical, thought-provoking advice like this that makes clear this isn't just a book of examples and tutorials. It's a book that reveals, from experience, the art skills needed to become a concept artist, or a book, comic, or media illustrator, and how to go about getting and honing those skills. Observation and constant sketching is a must (which made me realise that joining the local urban sketchers wasn't as "useless" to me as I thought), as is gaining a visual vocabulary, learning the problem-solving approach to designing characters, places, AND the final art pieces. This book is not just for browsing through; Francis Tsai goes from the "big picture" advice and long-term strategies for a striving artist, before going into the 100 ways of creating fantasy figures.

So we come to the 100 ways, and if I hadn't already been impressed with the preceding stuff, the bulk of the book is packed with inspirational techniques and strategies to stretch and strengthen one's art. In many ways, I think the book should have been titled toward this end, as the 100 tips aren't JUST for fantasy figues, but artwork that balances figures and/or monsters in their environments and in the art. This book is a keeper: you can always open it randomly for a new technique, or use it more systematically, say, when you need to create a sympathetic character or conversely, a monster; and when you need inspiration, a "hook", or just to climb out of a rut.  

So, there are no walkthroughs in this book, but it's packed full of art examples, good tips and advice. It's not a style you're going to learn how to recreate, but it's a guidebook on how to develop your own style, and how to add to your drawing and design skills, and how to make art directors happy (or, happier, at least). Highly recommended.


Preciousness, Red Lines and Miscellaneous Links

posted by marrael 2011-12-13 23:22:03

When I was in secondary school (in the British Commonwealth, this is the name of school you attend between ages 13 to 16, after primary school), I was certain my art teacher was out to get me. Sketches I'd loving tickled onto the paper with my timid 2B pencils would return to me with corrective lines gouged into the drawing, sometimes in what looked like 8B charcoal. Every art student got them, but with my work it'd always seemed more heartbreaking because I'd had widespread assurance the originals were so pretty. Yet, my drawings would still receive more corrective lines than others. (Thanks, Mrs Ong.)

With age comes wisdom, albeit very slowly. When you're starting out, everything you make with your hands is dear and seen as precious. Every pencil mark and paint stroke is done with a lot of sincerity, and having it ripped to pieces is, well, heartbreaking. Years and years down the line, you get jaded: Sketches and drawings are discarded, revised for the client's liking, taken in directions you hadn't expected, and after producing literally thousands of pictures, you may get used to seeing your own work more critically, clinically, and start to anticipate criticisms--and then heed or disregard those in your work according to your emotional and financial needs at the moment.

The lesson that comes with time: What may be dear and precious in your work to you may not be apparent to everyone else. But then again, if you're lucky enough that your work starts off hugely popular maybe this won't be a hard knock you'll have to deal with! But if your art has weaknesses, red lines (or in my teacher's case, 8B pencil) on top of one's work help open your eyes to your pictures' problems and solutions. And sometimes, because you're getting better at art over time, you start being the one applying the red pen to your own work.

Here's my own recent example: Tangled (Revisited)

While Lori McNee at Fine Art Tips has several drastic examples:
How I Destroyed a Painting to Make it Better
Give a New Identity to an Unsold Painting!
Rework an Old Painting & Make it Sell!

I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. --Jackson Pollock

On to miscellanous links:

The Art Order has issued a new challenge: Levi
This is a delightful article: The Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents
A tangent is when two or more lines interact in a way that insinuates a relationship between them that the artist did not intend.

I didn't know this problem had a name! But it is something I do look out for when drawing. Having come across other artists' images that suffer from the problem, this article explains very thoroughly what to look out for, reasons to avoid tangents, and easy solutions. 
And this is a HUGE tangent that is NOT art related, but a hilarious comedy sketch, sort-of related to the preciousness of our artistic talents: Talent Dredge from Mitchell and Webb 
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Artists Helping Artists

posted by marrael 2011-11-24 00:36:07

In the free-wheeling and dealing world on the Internet, it's always been interesting for me to note the wide range of artistic styles and abilities out there that are still quite dazzling to me, who managed to live the first 17 years of my life without it. Prior to the Internet, my exposure to art was in the form of books, stationery, art classes and museums. Even with regular exposure to the widest variety of books, it was still looking at art through the filters imposed by industry experts and book editors. It wasn't bad (on the contrary, it was all good stuff) but it was rare to find rough sketches or pictures of work in development outside of biographical books about artists. Even in the early days of the Internet, scanners weren't common, digital painting was (more or less) in its infancy, and the artists to be found online were probably just a fraction of a percentage of the artists you can find online today.
Recent explorations on the Internet revealed to me that it isn't just artists of various abilities flourishing online, but the tutorials written for artists of varying levels by artists at varying levels. It really shouldn't have been a surprise to me, because some of these tutorials have been the subject of hilarity in some of the forums I roll in (frequently, tutorials by obviously young-male artists trying to teach others how to draw ladyboobs). Maybe it's just the Thanksgiving spirit getting to me, but I had an epiphany looking at these tutorials yesterday, even some of the ones I know I'd have written completely differently: It's all artists trying to help other artists. And this motivation to help is found at all levels of ability--which is brilliant.
Now, I could end here after pointing out that we could be grateful for this alone (and I'll also provide links to general tutorial sites at the bottom) but I'd like to take it further. Sometimes I find stuff on the internet alluding to artists behaving badly, whether it's stealing (not cool), being flaky (as artists, we're allowed some slack being "creative types", but not too much), ungrateful, jealous, not good at sharing, et cetera. I'm not going to be schoolmarm here, because I've hardly been the model for any type of moral behavior for much of my life, but I will share something: It's definitely no fun being in an insecure place, and being in so deep that looking at other artists gets you down. And after looking at so many tutorials, I wonder if the trick to coming out of negativity is to turn it around, recognise one's strengths, and use them for helping others (this includes other artists). Because everyone starts somewhere. No one is born Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci right out of the womb. There are art teachers, there are informal art teachers, and there's art by tons of other artists we look at everyday, and all and every one of them is going to affect our own art, whether we're conscious of it or not. 
OK, so some artists may look like they don't need help anymore (if so, good for them; but remember there was a time they did); they're still vastly outnumbered by other artists and beginning artists looking for encouragement. And giving encouragement is something that will keep you in a positive place--and grateful when it's returned!

(Disclaimer: Not all generous acts of helping others will be received with 100% glowing gratitude--like these flog entries--but that's OK. ;) Do it to potentially help or to just feel good without expectations of things you may not be able to control. Easier said than done, but this is a disclaimer for you.) 

Besides art-hosting sites and artist's personal websites, art tutorials can also be found on sites expressly for providing tutorials and help for various subjects. And last by...

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Perfect is the Enemy

posted by marrael 2011-11-20 19:02:50

Pfshaw, has it really been 10 days since my last blog post? I am shamefaced. A lot has been going on, and I suspect that many other artists as well have been taking advantage of this time of year where Christmas shopping (or, Christmas selling) is the top priority of independent shops and artists. What a handy excuse! And handy blog topic.

The title of the post may come from advice you may have heard before, commonly "Don't let perfect become the enemy of the good". Or: "Perfect is the enemy of the good," which, I am again ashamed to find out, originated from Voltaire, who wrote one of my favourite books ever, Candide. (That guy? Genius.)

Perfectionism, it has taken me a long time to figure out, really is a flaw. Here are the excuses I used to run through in my head, to avoid selling my work (and, some of them I'm still using): My portfolio isn't good enough yet. I haven't got my prints of this picture just right, I can't offer them for sale! There's a stray dot on this picture that's bugging me. My web site isn't ready. I don't have photos, or good enough photos, of this product. I don't have a story or description of Shakespearean standards to accompany this product. 

"Not good enough" is an excuse that rears its head constantly, and it's just a delaying tactic. It's used to deliberately place an obstacle between oneself and the Test--Will it sell? Do people want it? Will people pay for it? Deciding not to sell ("yet") yields the same financial result as not having people buy it, but the former lets us keep our ego, while the latter brings on a whole host of disappointments and questions ("WHY?") and may necessitate us working harder to sell, when all we want to do is create art. It's really understandable. But also counter-productive. 

Any job--every job--has bits of it we don't enjoy quite as much as other bits of it. Selling isn't as much fun to me as creating, but until the day I can afford a marketing department, it's a necessity, and perfectionism (useful as it can sometimes be in art-making) shouldn't come into it if it stops me posting services or items for sale. Good enough is good enough. All I need to do to convince myself of this is to visit Regretsy from time to time, and see some truly weird and questionable products that are offered for sale (in various places, not just etsy), accompanied with photos taken in the semi-darkness, and descriptions written in ALL CAPS or wth hillarious spelling errows [sic].

Of course it may be disappointing to spend time crafting an auction, or an etsy posting, or Craigslist posting, or a new product, and get no responses, so start with creating or listing items and services that take the least effort. Those may yield something! And then work up to those that take more investment (time, money, or materials-wise). 

Happy selling!

Recommended links: IttyBiz Confessional: What if I'm not awesome enough?

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Growing as an Artist (Part III: Learning to See, Making It Work)

posted by marrael 2011-11-11 08:02:18

Tim Gunn (most often seen on Project Runway) has more or less immortalised the words "Make it work" in his voice, and I've often been amused how the designers who hear it will step back, see their creations anew, and yes, try their hardest to make them work. It seems like such an inexact science though; fashion (and art) have always suffered from a wishy-washy reputation--how, it's only for the people who live in their heads, look at things a lot, once in a while go aha!, snap their fingers, fiddle about, then it all suddenly Looks Good, and Art Is Accomplished. I've often run into people who seem to have this idea of art and design, and some of them were (this is what surprised me) artists.

Much as I love the words "make it work", I feel they are too vague to be useful, and they are time-wasters. Art isn't magical, isn't wishy-washy, and doesn't need to be vague. Even the Greeks found it possible to establish the Golden Ratio, the loveliest proportion (you may disagree) of length to breadth of any rectangular shape; the Greeks basically settled on some mathematical principles on how one proportion generally looks nicer than others. And loads of people since the Greeks have found ways to describe and quantify aspects of art and paintings. Observe: contrast, composition, flow, colour choice, colour intensity, key (low or high), drama, dynamism, tension, pattern, movement, texture, energy, proportion, scale, mood, interest, articulation, line, detail, complexity... the list goes on, and not all those words mean the same things, though some seem similar. 

A painting is always more than what it shows literally. It is always more than the sum of its parts. There are, truly, ways to "make it work". That's where seeing comes in--breaking a piece down into as many different ways as possible, so that it works in as many aspects as the artist wants, to create a whole that works for what the artist wants. 

An artist or an art buyer who can only see art for the literal subjects depicted isn't seeing half of what there is to see in it. They may feel parts of a picture subconsciously, like its colours and effect on his/her mood, its energy, or strength of composition. If something is "off", they may not be able to spot or articulate what it is. Conversely I feel that many paintings look good and become popular not just because of subjective taste, but also because that piece got a lot of aspects or elements in it quantifiable-y right, or stayed close to principles that are historically and culturally (even biologically) established as beautiful. Wonderfully, art and style is still diverse because humans are diverse. But do works of art that work (by common consensus) usually have some things in common? I think so.

I was challenged in this lesson not too long ago when a fellow artist showed me two of his pieces of the same subject. They were portraits of a woman holding some flowers, and they were "the same picture": same pose, same composition, same woman... except one of the portraits was in colour, and the other was in graphite pencil. "Why," the artist asked in mild frustration, "does one look better than the other? Why do I like the black and white one more?" (When he had spent more time on the colour?) I wasn't the only artist present, but I was the only one who could articulate that the graphite portrait had better contrast and hence more interest, and a stronger composition (because of the contrast and center of interest) and slightly more texture and variation in tone than the colour portrait, which was all a bit washed out. I got stared at in amazement for making it all sound so "scientific". (And not once did I need to venture into talking about style or subjective taste. I had only pointed out why the black-and-white "worked better".) 

Aha. So, I hadn't gone to art school (...

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Growing as an Artist (Part II: Hearing Criticism)

posted by marrael 2011-11-07 23:24:47

I didn't go to art school, for a lot of reasons that were unique to my background and experiences, but when I did take art classes up to college (nothing beyond the 101 level, alas), my art teachers were supportive and encouraging. I do wonder what it would have been like to be an art school graduate, but I also loved the crazy college ride I took (Journalism and a whole smattering of art history, literature and philosophy classes)... and, er... gosh, what was the topic of this entry again? Oh, right--growing as an artist.

The few years I got to attend GenCon (when it was still in Wisconsin!), I made sure to sign up for the Portfolio Review slots offered by Wizards of the Coast art directors. I recognised this was the best, immediate way to show my work to the people I wanted to work for (one day), and to hear how I sucked. (OK, I'll grant no one ever wants to hear how they suck. But if you accept already the idea that you suck, even in the smallest way somewhere somehow, it becomes easier to hear it spelled out.) The slots always had the first name of the art director available to crit your work, and by the time I was signing up, all the slots by A, B, and C had been taken up, and only slots by art director D were available. I shrugged my shoulders at the time, and signed up for a slot with D.

Chances are there may be readers who will one day read this and figure out who D was/is, and I have nothing but respect for this person, who gave me very kind but also objective, well-balanced and helpful feedback, and at a level I could understand at the time (because at the time I was really, in terms of technical level, a n00b). I was enlightened on my strengths (two) but also my main problem areas (also two), and the person really was kind, because I definitely had many weaknesses, some that took me years to figure out. (Maybe art school could have sped up the process.) But I was given just two things (contrast, anatomy) to work on after the review. And I walked away feeling a little disappointed in my work and its reception, but also (mostly) positive, with goals to aim for. Then I tried to share with another aspiring artist at the con my portfolio review experience.

"Who did you get?" was the first question asked of me. I replied, saying it was D.

"Oh no! D is mean! No one likes D. I'm sorry." Or words to that effect. It didn't take me long to realise that there was a reason D's slots were the only ones still available when I signed up. I said D hadn't seemed mean, but had pointed out a lot of flaws.

"Yeah! And that was what D did with me. Kept pointing out the bad stuff! That's why I don't review with D anymore." 

I am, of course, paraphrasing as I can only do 10 years after the fact. Anyway, having seen this artist's work, I could easily imagine, even then, what D would have said about it. I kept my trap shut. But I realised while I had gotten out of the portfolio review exactly what I'd expected and needed (knowledge of what I was lacking, ie. reasons why my dream wasn't yet reality), while this other artist hadn't (same dream, but who knows what expectations). He wasn't alone; I could only conclude all the other artists who hadn't wanted a review by D didn't want to hear bad stuff either. 


The point of this long story (there is one!) is that bad stuff, or criticism, whether provided by others or oneself, is necessary for growth. Anyone who's only ever showered by compliments, or who only wants compliments, may have flaws they'll never know. If they don't get off their own beaten path, not even to risk a few knocks to the ego, it's a slim chance (or a very slow process) that their work will progress beyond what they're comfortable doing. But if growing and improving is part of an artist's ...

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Growing as an Artist (Part I)

posted by marrael 2011-11-03 02:02:09

OK, so there's a bit to be suspicious of my tackling this subject when I'm not exactly at the top of the art heap (is there an art heap? how do I get on it?), but this occupies my mind a lot: How to get better at making pictures. This might actually be the easiest part of being an artist, compared to challenges like how to make money, how to make a living, how to find your audience, how to keep going, how to balance painting with marketing... you get the picture. Trying to become technically better looks (almost) straightforward.

Except I know it isn't, because all artists have different reasons and processes as to how and why they make art. Some may be in it for relaxation, self-expression, pleasure, or all that in any combination. Growing as an artist isn't something that comes up until.. well, the day you're looking at your own work, then at your inspiration (a photo, a live portrait sitter, or masterpiece you're emulating), and wrinkling your brows and wondering: why do I suck? (Or, why doesn't my work resemble that?) The more varied and good art you look at, the more you may start, annoyingly, to discover your weaknesses: likeness, or composition, contrast, use of colour, design,  painting skills, or anatomy, or dynamism. (Though, at the same time, you may also realise every artist has strength and weaknesses. It would just be nice to have more of the former than latter, and have the strengths be really awesome, and the flaws invisible...)

Sometimes an image occurs to you that makes you say: I want to make that, but I don't think I can. It's too hard; I don't have the skills or patience. Those images are important. Those images are the ones that must be attempted. Over and over, if need be, because they are the ones that help you grow. Whereas the ones you churn out with all confidence, or that you KNOW you can do... it's not that they're not worth doing (and they may help pay the bills), but if, even before you start, you know that you know every step of the process and what the result is going to be, that's a strong sign that art-making has become rote-work instead of trial and discovery.

There's a story I often think about (likely fictitious!) about a Chinese brush-painter who was commissioned to do a large brush painting of a mountain landscape. After the art patron described the painting he wanted, the painter considered, and said, "Come back in a year." One year later, the patron made it back to the artist's mountain studio, and the painter said, "One moment." Before the patron's eyes, he proceeded to paint, his ink brush creating forest-covered mountains and valleys and rivers and mists and clouds, just as the patron had asked for, a year ago. The painting was completed in no time, and the patron accepted it in amazement, then suspicion. "If it only took you this short time to complete this, why did you ask me to wait a year?" In answer, the artist brought the patron to the back of the studio, where stacks and stacks of earlier and clumsy attempts at the same painting lay in evidence of the artist's one-year toil.

Personally, attempting the same painting 365 days in a row would drive me bonkers, but I love the story. There's modesty, perseverence, the pursuit of excellence (or at least improvement), and pragmatism in it. Modesty in that the painter knew he wasn't capable of the image he wanted to produce yet, persevering because in time he knew he could be, and pragmatic because,  hey, one year is a pretty generous deadline for any one image. Would that we could all be hermit painters living in the mountains with endless supplies of paper.

The "Why do I suck?" question always precedes improvement--so asking it is a good thing. But learning something new requires treading into unfamiliar territory, which often isn't a com...

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The Drawing Month

posted by marrael 2011-10-30 03:08:44

Whew, I almost forgot that I'd promised to post a reminder! November is knocking on the door now, and you can read my last post on NaNoDrawMo about, well, the drawing equivalent for National Novel Writing Month. It explains itself, really. But here are the links again:

NaNoDrawMo on Flickr
Art Every Day Month on Flickr (info and sign-up here)

If you're taking part, give a shout in the comments!


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